The Science of Sleep

The Science of Sleep

Michel Gondry has found a visual vocabulary to capture the psychic instability of living in a postmodern, post-analogue and post-Freudian age. The boy’s a genius. An adolescent and puerile genius, perhaps. But a genius nonetheless.

When his eye and imagination came into contact with cerebral virtuoso screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, their partnership spawned one of the best films of the past 10 years: 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There, Gondry created a visual language that perfectly matched Kaufman’s acutely intelligent exploration of modern love and memory. The film was original, sublimely funny and touching all at the same time.

The seed of the idea for Eternal Sunshine was Gondry’s, but he was never really a screenwriter in the traditional sense. When Spike Jonze introduced Gondry to Kaufman in 1999, the former drummer and music video director mentioned an idea that friend artist Pierre Bismuth had had about the future potential to erase painful memories. While both Gondry and Kaufman were given Oscars for Eternal Sunshine’s screenplay, it was Kaufman who had spent three years slaving away on the script’s dialogue and scenario. Gondry was directing Kaufman’s far more surreal and inferior script, Human Nature, during that same period.

The Science of Sleep, which opens this Friday, is Gondry’s first film based on his own script. Though as visually arresting and imaginatively expansive as Eternal Sunshine and his best music videos (and it better be, given that he’s relentlessly cribbed from himself), the film proves that Gondry’s sense of what makes a compelling narrative is sorely lacking. Gondry recently told the New York Times Magazine that the criticism he most often receives is that he can’t really tell a story. “While I have a strong sense of the visual,” Gondry says. “My narrative skills are weak.” Unfortunately, these critics are right.

As anyone who has watched the Directors Label DVD devoted to Gondry’s work can tell you, the filmmaker is very much locked in his own head. His obsessions are those of a 12 year-old boy. He’s intrigued by sex and his lifelong struggle to get any. He feels love very deeply, but the seemingly endless pinballing about that happens upstairs seems to get in the way of him ever having a mature relationship. And The Science of Sleep is an autobiographical film. (It was even shot in Gondry’s old Paris apartment.)

The film’s protagonist, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), has a lot of trouble separating his waking and sleeping lives. In his mind, he is the host of Stéphane TV, a program whose set sits literally behind his eyes (his eyelids are represented by a pair of blinds). Here, in a mock cooking show, he provides a recipe for dreams (a soup of random thoughts and reminiscences, friendships, relationships and “other ships”) and explains a phenomenon called Parallel Synchronized Randomness.

In Stéphane’s increasingly imperiled everyday life, he has just arrived in Paris (from Mexico) bearing a series of paintings of plane crashes and natural disasters that he hopes to turn into calendar art. Upon arrival, he meets Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a beautiful neighbour and fellow crafts lover, who mistakes him for a piano-mover but soon comes to appreciate his whimsical charms. As Stéphane gradually falls for Stéphanie, keeping himself anchored in reality becomes increasingly difficult. He tries to woo Stéphanie in his dreams.

These flights of fancy are gorgeously surreal. Cities of cardboard tubing—and the myriad other creations Stéphane creates—expose the banality of the world in which he and Stéphanie (and we) are forced to live. Indeed, when seen as an ode to handcrafted, lo-fi art, The Science of Sleep is a glowing success.

Unlike Charlie Kaufman, Gondry doesn’t understand that a film needs to be both personal and universal at the same time. You walk away from a Kaufman film thinking about how your own mind works and how different memories and thoughts connect and what consciousness is. You walk away from The Science of Sleep thinking I really hope Gondry can find himself a girlfriend!

Gondry is a visual genius, a chronic inventor who will no doubt continue to open our eyes to new ways of seeing. Whether he will learn to write, however, remains to be seen. It looks like we’ll have to wait until the release of his next film, Be Kind Rewind, starring Jack Black to find out.

If you’re in New York in the coming weeks, check out Gondry’s show at the Jeffrey Deitch gallery in SoHo. The sets from The Science of Sleep, including an enormous cave that dominates a number of Stéphane’s dream sequences, are replicated here. A companion piece to the film, the show explores the theme of failed love.